A civil rights organization released a report yesterday concluding that the D.C. school voucher program last year fell short of a key congressional mandate by enrolling only about 75 students from low-achieving public schools and more than 200 who were already in private schools.
Much of the report by People for the American Way, a liberal group opposed to publicly financed vouchers, contains previously published information about shortcomings in the year-old District program, which is serving about 1,000 low-income children. But the document also includes e-mail messages, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, in which officials from the voucher program and the U.S. Department of Education discussed how to obscure facts that could be politically damaging.
"We got a number of documents that show many problems in the implementation of the program," said Judith E. Schaeffer, deputy legal director for People for the American Way Foundation. "We think the voucher program should be repealed," she added. "It is not a wise use of federal dollars."
Supporters of vouchers yesterday disputed many of the report's conclusions. Sally Sachar, president and chief executive of the Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the D.C. program, called the study "irresponsibly biased" and said it is "filled with many inaccurate statements that could have been corrected had they met with us." She added that implementation of the program "has been very successful."
The debate illustrates the still-raging battle in the District and the nation over vouchers. Although voucher programs in Milwaukee and Florida also are funded by public dollars, the District's is the only such program financed by the federal government. It provides grants of up to $7,500 per child toward tuition and other education expenses at private or religious schools.
The People for the American Way report notes that the 2004 legislation establishing D.C. vouchers requires that priority be given to District students attending public schools defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law as "needing improvement." Schools are placed in that category if they fail to meet the school system's academic benchmarks two years in a row.
But only about 75 of the 1,000 voucher recipients came from such schools, according to the report, while "more than 200 students already enrolled in private schools . . . have received vouchers."
Congress provided enough money to serve at least 1,600 students. Scholarship fund officials have said that they offered vouchers to as many public school students as possible and that more public schoolchildren would have applied if organizers had had more time to publicize the program.
The decision to provide vouchers to a large number of students already in private schools was a sensitive issue with program directors and D.C. officials, according to e-mail exchanges.
In a June e-mail to Nina Rees, assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, Sachar wrote: "We will have to decide how much we say pre-emptively about public school vs. private school students (we will definitely get asked the question, but we can decide whether it makes more sense to put it out there affirmatively or wait to be asked) . . . "
Gregory M. McCarthy, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), wrote a few days later: "Nina and Michelle [Walker, a Williams aide] thought we should not state how many we will give to children already in private schools. In fact there are legal reasons for not locking into a number, but they thought it was better just not to be specific at all here."
Under the D.C. voucher law, participating private schools are allowed to reject voucher-funded applicants based on test scores.
In an e-mail in April to Sachar about wording she proposed in a brochure to address questions about that issue, an unnamed Education Department official said: "Sally, the House Ed Committee has been reluctant to put this answer in writing. Many members are unaware that the schools can in fact pick students. . . . I am not sure how to fix the answer but if this document is made public, it may damage their vote count."
Rees, in an e-mail to Sachar about the need to keep Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and other members of Congress in the loop about the program, wrote in May that Specter "(ugh) wants it and while I hate the guy, we need to be nice to him I'm told."
In an interview yesterday, Rees said, "I regret having made the comment and have the utmost respect for the chairman of the Appropriations Committee."
She acknowledged the low number of voucher students from schools in need of improvement. Program directors, Rees added, should have better luck this fall because the number of D.C. schools needing improvement has increased from 15 to 68.
Sachar, responding to questions about her e-mail exchanges, said, "We were never intending or trying to cover up. . . . We have been extremely forthright with the press and the Congress . . . about so many details involved in implementing this program."